Vanished Pioneer; Expedition Soon Might Solve 1937 Mystery of Amelia Earhart

With no trace of plane or flyers ever found, Earhart has been the object of a frenzy of speculation about how she died, with theories ranging from the plausible to the bizarre.

WASHINGTON -- They last were seen bounding up the silver left wing of their Lockheed Electra, navigator Fred Noonan clutching Amelia Earhart's left hand to help her from the ground. Then they eased themselves into the cockpit and slammed the hatch shut.

In a matter of moments, the Electra roared down a 3,000-foot New Guinea runway before slowly rising above the Huon Gulf, skimming so close to the waves that water sprayed the wings. The Electra was off on its 2,556-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean to Howland Island, one of the final legs of Earhart's daring effort to become the first person to circle the world at the Equator.

Those gathered at that airfield on the morning of July 2, 1937, were the last people ever known to have seen Earhart, Noonan or the gleaming, all-metal Electra. Sometime during the next 20 hours as they searched for tiny Howland Island, the flyers and their plane vanished, launching a baffling mystery.

Seventy years later, Earhart is simultaneously an icon and elusive American legend. At a time when pilots were afforded rock-hero status, her fame in the 1930s was unmatched -- the woman who dared to live exactly as she pleased and who liked to say, "Women must try to do things as men have tried."

Yet because she was so famous, scores of people have had difficulty accepting such an unromantic end as the Electra's running out of fuel and crashing. Because no trace of plane or flyers ever has been found, Earhart has been the object of a frenzy of speculation about how she died, with theories ranging from the plausible to the bizarre.

The late and indefatigable CBS newsman Fred Goerner argued that Earhart and Noonan safely landed in the Marshall Islands, where they were captured by the Japanese and died as prisoners. In the early 1960s, Goerner made four trips to Saipan, where he interviewed dozens of Saipanese who reported that before World War II, Japanese soldiers on the island held a white man and white woman with short hair. At least one witness identified a photo of Earhart.

Others, such as Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery and author of the 2006 book Finding Amelia, contend that Earhart crash-landed her plane off a reef near Gardner Island, about 400 miles south of Howland, where she and Noonan died of thirst or hunger. Gillespie, regarded as a serious investigator, plans an expedition to Gardner next month in an effort to uncover clues of the lost Electra.

Then there have been the theories that can charitably be described only as peculiar. They range from Earhart's returning to the United States and assuming another identity to her being taken to Japan and broadcasting propaganda as Tokyo Rose.

Yet a growing majority agrees with Sally Putnam Chapman, granddaughter of Earhart's husband, publisher George Palmer Putnam. "She ran out of gas and went down, no two ways about it," said Chapman, author of Whistled Like a Bird: The Untold Story of Dorothy Putnam, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart.

"I don't think anybody wants to hear that side of the story," Chapman said. "It was cloudy that day, she couldn't see the island, she wasn't sure where she was and went down."

At the center of the mystery is Earhart, a remarkable and audacious woman who would be a comfortable fit in today's America. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, established a woman's record for the fastest nonstop flight across the United States, and was the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California.

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